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Posts Tagged ‘Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Anchor Books, 1994, 237 pp.

bird-by-birdI went through a real fascination with Anne Lamott a few years ago. I read Traveling Mercies and Plan B, and then I went out and got all her novels to read and I loved them all. Then I read Grace (Eventually), and gushed all over it because it touched all my vulnerable new mother buttons. Then she published Some Assembly Required, which I did not read because it seemed such an exposure of her child and grandchild, and I just got turned off. When I returned to find the gems from her earlier works, they were not as good as I remembered them to be. While Lamott was still clever and quippy, I realized her neuroses were no longer interesting and her theology not as fresh or deep as I had previously thought. So I found myself feeling quite grumpy toward Anne Lamott for awhile.

However, since I began writing more seriously, everyone has recommended Bird by Bird as one of the best books on writing that is out there. I decided that I could not consider myself a writer if I had not read it, and my writer’s group urged me on. At first, all my gripes got in the way of appreciating Bird by Bird, especially since it seemed geared specifically to fiction writers and those trying to make a life by their writing. It probably didn’t help that I had already heard other people tell me about the best parts, which took away the power of their punch. Like Lamott, though, I found grace (eventually), and grew to appreciate Bird by Bird more as I made my way through to the end. There is much that is simply alright, punctuated by phrases, paragraphs or insights that are brilliant and powerful.

Some favorite insights:

On folk sayings and cliches:

Most people’s intuitions are drowned out by folk sayings. We have a moment of real feeling or insight, and then we come up with a folk saying that captures the insight in a kind of wash. The intuition may be real and ripe, fresh with possibilities, but the folk saying is guaranteed to be a cliche, stale and self-contained. (113)

This is one of my pet peeves in preaching, and writing, as well as in pastoral situations with people. I have not been able to say why nearly so well as she has.

On writer’s block:

The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty. (178)

Connected to the emptiness, she offers this wisdom about giving of oneself in writing:

If you give freely, there will always be more… It is only when I go ahead and decide to shoot my literary, creative wad on a daily basis that I get any sense of the full presence… You are going to have to give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward.

This talk about giving is connected to one of the most helpful themes throughout the book: the difference between the rewards of writing and the rewards of being published. Many people want to get published, but that’s not the same as finding joy in the work of writing. Writing is a lot of work, but you have to find your joy in the work and the words it produces, not in the external recognition of publication. While the importance of publication has shifted in the self-publishing world of blogs and internet publications, her point remains: it should be about the writing, not the validation.

I know that’s true for me in this little blog space—it’s best when I am writing in order to give, to work things out with others, and not seeking to create something that creates lots of hits and Facebook shares. Thanks, Anne Lamott, once again for reminding me.

All New People, by Anne Lamott, North Point Press, 1989.

Anne Lamott has done it to me again. The book may be 20 years old, written about a childhood 50 years ago, but the feelings and experiences of vulnerability, heartache and broken human relationships are as fresh as ever. All New People is the story of Nanny Goodman growing up in Marin County in the 1960s, with off-kilter parents and a clash between the tennis club perfection (and imperfection) and the leftist/hippie counterculture. We read Nanny’s perspective on the complicated and changing adult relationships with her parents, relatives and friends as she navigates her own attempts at relationships and growing selfhood.

This book spoke to me on a deep level. I was in tears before I even reached the first chapter. The prologue takes place in a hypnotist’s office, where grown-up Nanny has gone to find healing for her “anxiety, melancholia, fears of loss, rejection, death, humiliation, suicide, madness…” (6). The hypnotist asks her to scroll back through her life’s most painful memories, one by one, as though viewing each as a snapshot and analyzing the poses. She goes back to the very beginning, one of her earliest memories of pain, and then the hypnotist instructs her to help her child-self through each situation, offering words of comfort, healing, humor and forgiveness.

Nanny’s walk through her life’s painful moments became my walk through mine. There are painful memories in my life that I cling to fiercely, angrily. I have protected my anger in those moments like it is the only thing guarding my child-self from complete collapse. Probably, it once was. But Nanny’s walk made me realize that there is another way to protect the young girl in my memories. I don’t need to be angry and defensive on her behalf—perhaps I can just give her what she needed then, to help her out with comfort, healing, humor and forgiveness. Since reading that prologue, I have already begun a process of reviewing my personal painful snapshots, and stepping in to change the picture. I have been carrying these hurts for a long, long time. I already feel like the stone has been rolled away. The age-old anger is starting to abate, and the forgiveness creeping in. It has been a long time coming.

Later in the novel, Nanny describes an moving experience she had in church:

In a way that I’ve never quite understood, the veil tore an inch for me that day, like it does every so often, when in the midst of all that is mundane and day-to-day, there’s suddenly a tiny tear in the veil, and you see the bigger brighter thing, and then the veil repairs itself, and the day goes on as before. (142)

This is a great description of my experiences of holy encounters—but even more, it is what happened to me in reading the prologue of this book. The veil opened for me a tiny bit, and God shone through.

I think it’s Lamott’s perspective on life that opens my heart through her words. She just puts everything out there, with an amazing amount of honesty and reality. Things that I dare not speak, she names and pokes at and exposes to light. I think the clue to why and how is in the title line from the book:

I said to her what Ed said to me, which was why do we make it all seem like a crisis, over and over again? Why do we worry it all to death, like dogs with socks or chew-toys? ‘Look at it this way,’ he said to me. ‘In a hundred years? — All new people.’ (117)

In a hundred years, all new people. Or, as Isaiah 40 puts it, “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” So why worry ourselves about these old human hurts? Why delay forgiveness? “Comfort, comfort O my people.”

Once again, art is healing. Thank you, Anne Lamott.

Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott, Riverhead Books, 2007.

I love you, Anne Lamott. You open yourself and your life to us, wringing beauty and grace out of the confused and pathetic pile of feelings and mistakes and heartache that is this life. You make me want to be a more careful writer, a more mindful observer, a more generous friend, and a better person. Thank you for opening up your own brokenness so the rest of us don’t feel so alone and ashamed, and rendering beautiful the mess of it all.

The parts of this book about grace were a gift to me. I don’t know how you make yourself so vulnerable. It takes great courage to expose your inward panic and problems–but that vulnerability in life makes God’s grace possible, and the corresponding vulnerability on the page makes you and your writing a means of grace for me, your reader.

I was especially struck this time, this book, by the parts about motherhood. You capture the desperate floundering about that I feel in my own parenting, as well as the absolute joy and delight in my son’s life and discoveries. You give voice to my feelings of helplessness and worry over his well-being and my own, and your words were a beacon of grace to me. You made me feel like I’m not crazy. Or, better, that I am probably crazy, but at least I’m not the only one.

Thank you for the grace that flows through this book.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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